My new maid is 22 on paper but she looks younger. I am told she probably lied about her age to make herself more “marketable”. She looked 22 in the photo that I saw on the biodata. Her hair was all swept up neatly making her look older perhaps. When I saw her for the first time, I was very surprised to see a young girl with an afro hairstyle. So different from the photo I saw.

I’ve been chatting with her to get to know her and understand her better. This is what she’s told me so far.

My father is a farmer. We live somewhere near the jungle where there is not a car in sight. We only have the occassional lorry. We do not have electricity. We use candlelight and it is very dark at night. (When I first came here, I was scared to switch on the lights. I was afraid of the lights and I was afraid to see so many cars on the road.) We don’t have proper roads in our kampung, only a dirt road. We do not have toilet facilities. We place sticks above the ground then we dig holes below them to use as toilets.

I decided to come here to work because life is hard there. I did it to escape from my stepmother. My mother died when I was 7. I attended primary school but later on my stepmother persuaded my father to take me out of school because she said we didn’t have enough money. She then made me help out in the farm. Its hard work. I have two sisters. My younger sister and the youngest is my stepsister. My stepmother loves my stepsister but not us. The love is not the same when its not your real mother. So I came here because I couldn’t get along with my stepmother.

We had to attend camp first. I had to travel one day by lorry to the camp. The lorry was very crowded and there was no place to sit. I had to stand for the whole day. There were so many people at the camp, probably 300 at one time. Sometimes about 5 or 6 would leave for the new jobs only to be replaced by another 5 or more new ones.

We slept in longhouses. Everyone slept together. There were people on my left and right and bottom and top. We lay beside each other in rows. We had to bathe together, about 60 of us at the same time. There were so many of us they couldn’t afford to let us bathe one at a time. So there was a big bathroom where we had to all bathe at the same time. We would wash our clothes after our bath and hang them out to dry. They gave us uniforms from the maid agencies. There would be 3-4 different types of uniforms depending on which agency you were sent to. We had to label our clothes but even then sometimes its hard to distinguish them because there would be people with the same names around. They call out our names for baths and mealtimes and if your name was called out last or you were accidentally missed out somehow, you would get very little bathwater and only get to eat around 9pm.

Some of the girls cried everyday, especially those who were there for 6 to 8 months and still hadn’t secured any jobs. I was there for 3 months. It was so noisy all the time. There was always a buzzz of people talking. Sometimes other girls from the upstairs or different parts of the longhouse would throw stones at the windows of the girls who cried to shut them up because it was difficult to sleep with all that noise.

We had 4 teachers. They treated  us like children. Its difficult to control 300 over people. They would shout at us to stop making noise but then another group would start. We had to wake up at 5am to attend class and they would make us sing everyday. Those who were late were made to put on ridiculous looking big dark glasses and asked to sing in front of everybody with accompanying dancers (joget) by the others who were late. Sometimes we played silly games. This cheered up those who were sad.

Most of the girls there were heading for housekeeping jobs  but some for factories to be factory workers. Those who wanted to be factory workers had to pay money upfront. I made some friends but I don’t know where they are now because we all left for different places.

Of course I do not know if this story is entirely accurate or true but it helps me to understand my maid and her motivations better. It also gives me a picture of how things are at the camp overseas and why the system is such that some of them pass the medical tests conducted overseas but fail the ones conducted here. (Our different maid agencies here get some of the maids through some of the overseas camps or agencies like these or they would source them directly at times.) It also explains why some of those who have no experience still have much to learn when they come here after receiving “training” at the agencies.

And I would ask anyone to think twice before labelling their maid as “stupid”, “brainless”, “good for nothing” or “really can make you vomit blood” etc when they squat on top instead of sit on the toilet bowl, or is not careful enough with the kids near car doors etc. How to you expect someone who has not been in a car to be careful with car doors? How do you expect someone who is frightened when the light comes on with a switch to be able to use the kettle, the rice cooker, the iron the washing machine etc in just a week or two? How do you expect someone who probably leaves their door open all the time to remember to close doors and turn off taps? How do you expect someone who has not seen so many cooking equipment and pots in her life to be able to remember not to use the hard brush for your non-stick cooking pan initially? Or to remember to be gentle when wiping your priced breakable little decorations?

There are some maid are not “careless” or “forgetful” but I think they need to be given time to adjust to a new way of living. Of course some of the maids may not come from such a rural area as my maid and may really be stubborn and forgetful but there are those who are having a culture shock so I think we should be patient and help them to adjust.

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